Language and Its Discontents
Intellectuals have long been inclined to regard their own age as one of gross ignorance and impending collapse. Such anxieties about civilization writ large often coalesce around language and the perplexed questions of its proper use. Laments about the grammar gaffes of others are really laments about them as people: their intelligence, their politics, even their ethics. When it comes to language, we do, and should, take it personally.
The Language Wars, Henry Hitchings’s fourth book, traces the history of what David Foster Wallace deemed “the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd”: the usage curmudgeon. Unable to step back and put things in perspective, this ilk is marked by its hyperbolic intolerance of the smallest of solecisms. For such persons, split infinitives inspire visions of the apocalypse, omitted commas provoke diatribes of revivalist fervor, and text messaging seems aptly analogized to Mongols on the steppes (no joke). Such rhetorical excesses border on farce, yet more often than not, their tone is sincere. Venting their Wagnerian indignation, English’s malcontents publicly perform their disgust, fueling a competition for whose pet peeve portends the bleakest doom. They seem unable to accept, as Hitchings emphasizes, that change is a constitutive part of language, and that its conventions are just that: rules that are arbitrary but sanctioned by education and state institutions, thus lending them an aura of permanence.
The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
Hitchings styles himself as a sort of linguistic guru: a less polemical, more likable William Safire. Oozing with careful research, his text features an enjoyably outré cast of historical characters. There’s Jonathan Swift, whose 1712 essay, A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, inaugurated the now timeworn tradition of griping about English. There’s 19th-century moralist Henry Alford, for whom English’s “bespanglement” with French words and faddish Americanisms augured ill. There’s Australian-born pianist Percy Grainger, whose nostalgia for Britain’s Anglo-Saxon past led him to abjure “enjoyed” for “joy-quaffed” and “telephone” for “thor-juice-talker.” There’s Thomas Bowdler, who excised Shakespeare’s plays of lewd innuendo and published the cauterized versions in a family-friendly folio (hence, the verb “to bowdlerize”). There’s Philip Gove, editor of Webster’s third edition in the early ’60s, whose decision to include “ain’t” and avoid prescriptive judgment incited a minor culture war. There’s, too, British journalist John Richards, who founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 to police inappropriate use of this oft-abused punctuation mark.
Hitchings interweaves these character sketches with a history of the English language, beginning with Babel, moving through the Middle Ages, and culminating in the idiom’s current status as “the world’s auxiliary tongue.” Here, Hitchings’s primary purpose is to reveal how questions of usage have long been confounded with politics, power, and the status quo. Bulwarking language—whether from foreign idioms or “undesirables” within one’s own society—was central to the ideology of nation building. With American independence won, Noah Webster, architect of the eponymous dictionary, sought to solidify an American brand of English, distinct from the foppish frivolities of its British counterpart. Across the Atlantic, the emergence of a vocal middle class led those more privileged to exalt “proper” language as a bastion against the rabble’s perceived obscenities. Condemning colloquialisms enabled elites to shore up their self-conception as the superior class. Such social anxieties reached a fever pitch in Victorian England, where one’s pronunciation, diction, and vocal tone could wreak devastating personal consequences.
Hitchings’s project is ambitious, perhaps overly so. In addition to chronicling six-odd centuries of English and its Jeremiahs, Hitchings treats a spectrum of related topics: the significance of slang and obscenity; the rise of political correctness (of which Hitchings does not approve); the Internet and its impact on language (think: gratuitous exclamation points!); and the least pleasant word (Hitchings’s verdict? Moist). At times, Hitchings’s pace is too blistering, and the reader is left wanting more paragraphs with the eccentric individuals who populate his narrative. His prose, generally crisp, fluent, and pleasurable to read, occasionally overshoots. To illustrate the role of punctuation in resolving syntax, Hitchings employs the vexed example, “ ‘The bonobo,’ said the zookeeper, ‘enjoys penis fencing,’ ” leaving most readers at a loss for what “bonobo” and “penis fencing” might denote. After detailing the imaginative variety of terms for loose women, Hitchings reaches for a male equivalent. “Love rat is perhaps as close as we get,” he concludes—a term that has little valence for an American reader. Such passages feel like they’re trying too hard. The Language Wars is at its best when it allows its material to entertain on its own, as when Hitchings recounts the definition of “jaywalker” in one 1972 dictionary: “a careless pedestrian whom motorists are expected to
avoid running down.”
As The Language Wars takes pains to betray (convey or betray?), no language is neutral, and Hitchings proves no exception. His editorializing peppers the text and does more to illuminate than irritate. He deems purists’ desire to expunge language of all foreign influences (remember “freedom fries”?) as a “grotesque” yearning that “denies progress and misunderstands the essential dynamism of language.” And when, as with the injunction against ending sentences with prepositions, fears of misusage impede expression, Hitchings goads us “to do whatever seems most natural, least fidgety.” As Winston Churchill allegedly quipped, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
Syntax sticklers aside, Michael Adams’s From Elvish to Klingon plumbs another set of niche (and, depending on your point of view, even more “nerdy”) obsessions. An anthology of eight essays, most written by linguists and lexicographers, Adams’s text probes such disparate linguistic phenomena as Nadsat, the Slavic-derived slang of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and 1337 (pronounced “leet” or “elite”), the hacker-speak that ushered “pwn,” “noob,” and “orly” into our Internet vernacular. All are united by their status as “invented languages”: a term that Adams defines expansively, including Tolkien’s Quenya (a sort of Elvish Latin) and Joyce’s modernist prose within its purview.
All languages, of course, are invented. The distinction here is between “natural” languages—those that developed organically, through history and within cultures, like French or Aramaic—and what Adams terms “self-consciously invented” languages—those that were the brainchildren of single people at specific moments in time. Adams estimates that close to 1,000 languages fall within the latter category. Many were formed ex nihilo; the rest are a pastiche of existing tongues. Some such creations ring familiar: Esperanto, the idealistic conceit of 19th-century Polish polyglot Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, or Simlish, the fictional tongue of the popular life-simulation computer game. Others are more obscure: Solresol, which abandoned phonemes for the seven notes of the musical scale, or Volapük, Esperanto’s more convoluted and less successful predecessor. And, for those of us who thought that Latin was dead, there’s Neo-Latin, a fumigated form of the ancient idiom, cleansed of its medieval imperfections, that pined for the days before Rome fell.
Certain essays feature a technical jargon opaque to non-specialist readers. Take, for example, the chapter on Tolkien’s Elvish languages, which includes such abstruse linguistic terms as “voiced plosive,” “aspirated consonant,” and “privative prefix.” Others, like the final chapter on revitalized languages such as Modern Hebrew and Cornish, indulge in lengthy discussions of spelling and morphology that read like excerpts from an article found via JSTOR. The essay on Klingon, idiom of the humanoid warrior race of Star Trek fame, is also troubled: Authored in part by the language’s dictatorial founder, Marc Okrand, it verges on self-congratulation. Further confounding is the anthology’s wholesale exclusion of languages conceived in non-Western contexts: Africa, South America, and Oceania never appear, while Chinese and Arabic are mentioned only in passing.
Read outside of an academic setting, the collection’s result is a bit disappointing. Many of the anthology’s more compelling topics are explored with greater depth and more liveliness by Hitchings. Both texts probe the relationship between language and thought, taking George Orwell’s Newspeak, invented for his dystopian classic, 1984, as an example. While the essay in Adams’s volume, written by a former linguistics professor, gets caught up in the mechanics of word formation, Hitchings limns the broader resonances of Orwell’s doublethink, first describing and then debunking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (crudely stated, the notion that our language determines our reality). Different tongues do not breed different psychologies, Hitchings argues; at best, our vocabulary impacts how we perceive and remember discrete things. Unfortunately, Adams’s anthology largely lacks this critical edge.
A concern with language is really a concern with human life in toto. To quote again that expert in seemingly everything, David Foster Wallace: “You don’t, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can’t escape language: Language is everything and everywhere; it’s what lets us have anything to do with one another; it’s what separates us from the animals; Genesis 11:7-10 and so on.” Exploring this phenomenon in its many hues, Hitchings’s and Adams’s books probe language’s essential contradictions: how it at once delights and provokes near-existential frustration, serving as a source of the greatest optimism and the most fustian pessimism. Their historical accounts of language, whether of its critics or its innovators, recall English’s inherent arbitrariness and force us to take today’s language sensationalists with a heavy dose of skepticism. Chances are, the fate of our nation does not hinge on the fate of the semicolon.